August 27, 2015 5:25 pm
Updated: August 27, 2015 7:27 pm

Municipal and engineering groups glad politicians are talking infrastructure


WATCH ABOVE: Liberal leaders Justin Trudeau announced a major plank of his platform on Thursday, promising $125 billion to rebuild aging infrastructure. Mike Le Couteur reports.

Canada needs a stable, long-term, strategic infrastructure plan, says the president of an organization representing engineering companies, and he’s hopeful that politicians this election might finally be addressing the country’s infrastructure needs.

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Thursday morning, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced that he would double current infrastructure spending to $125 billion over the next ten years. In a speech to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in June, NDP leader Tom Mulcair promised an additional $1.5 billion dollars annually by the end of his term, if elected. And in his 2014 budget, Conservative leader Stephen Harper launched a $53 billion infrastructure program over ten years – the New Building Canada Plan.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau promises to double infrastructure spending in Canada

This is all welcome news to John Gamble, president and CEO of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies. “Is the situation serious? It’s very serious,” he said. “Am I completely discouraged? No, because I think there is a serious adult discussion going on politically about infrastructure, more so than I’ve seen in recent years.”

Mind the infrastructure gap

How serious is the situation? A 2012 report card gave 30 per cent of municipal infrastructure, including drinking water, roads, storm sewers and wastewater treatment, a “fair” to “very poor” grade. That same report estimated that it would cost $171.8 billion to bring that infrastructure up to adequate condition. An updated report card is coming out sometime this fall.

A 2004 TD Bank Financial Group report put the gap at $125 billion that year, and we can already see some of the effects of under-investing in infrastructure, said Brock Carlton, Chief Executive Officer of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

“You know the stories of the bridge in Laval a few years ago that fell apart. There are many examples of this: the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, but we also have the situation where the lack of adequate infrastructure in the country is diminishing our economic viability,” he said.

“We are at a crisis with respect to infrastructure.”

“Unfortunately sometimes when infrastructure fails, it can be gradual or it can be quite catastrophic,” said Gamble. “The potential consequences of aging or failing infrastructure or simply lack of sufficient infrastructure it could be impairment of water quality, drinking water, it could be bridge collapses, it could be just simply congestion which compounds our economy and ties up billions of dollars in people’s time annually every year.”

The problem is not so much that we’re not building new projects, but we’re not fixing the old ones, said Gamble. He likens it to a house.

WATCH: Liberal leader Justin Trudeau joins Global’s Chief Political Correspondent Tom Clark to discuss his infrastructure announcement.

“If you don’t maintain your home, the repairs will be quite catastrophic,” he said, and putting off repairs makes them cost even more in the end.

“We have to decide, are we more concerned about having the great hardwood flooring, which is a great investment, it’s a great investment to the home, it’s a value-added and it increases our enjoyment, but there’s no sense spending money on your brand new hardwood floors when your roof is leaking.”

Unfortunately, repairing a sewer is not a very sexy project for a politician.

“Nobody wants to show up at a ribbon-cutting for a road resurfacing.”

And, he said, because much of our infrastructure is invisible, we don’t pay it any attention until it breaks. “It’s a core underpinning of everything we do but because we expect it to be there, we don’t really notice.” But, it’s important for everything Canadians do. “It pays dividends economically, it pays dividends in our health and safety and it pays dividends in our enjoyment of life in this country.’

Fixing Canada’s infrastructure

We got to this situation, said Carlton, partly because governments are devoting less and less toward infrastructure. Funding as a percentage of GDP has declined since the 1950s, though it bumped up recently again with the stimulus spending in 2008 and 2009.

“If you look at the history of investments in infrastructure, Canada invested significantly in infrastructure in the 50s and 60s, as a way of bringing Canada into the modern economy at that time,” he said. “Then investments declined significantly and now we’re at a point where if we want to be in a modern economy in the 21st century, in a highly-competitive world, infrastructure investment is essential.”

One report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives had public infrastructure spending peaking at about 3.4 per cent of GDP in the late 1950s, and declining after that until the stimulus spending in the mid-2000s. Another report commissioned by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario said that total infrastructure spending, including money for maintenance, peaked at around 6 per cent of GDP around 1960.

The Association of Consulting Engineering Companies would like to see that percentage bumped back up to around 6 per cent of GDP. And while Gamble thinks that the Conservatives’ Building Canada Plan and New Building Canada Plan were useful programs, he’d like to see more than an economic stimulus package: a strategic infrastructure plan with stable funding.

“Something that’s going to be there through good times and bad times, something that shows that we’ve got a long-term vision,” he said. Canada’s infrastructure needs are too important to leave to ad hoc stimulus programs or political expediency, he said, but he’s hopeful things will change.

“I do think politicians are starting to take it seriously.”

Carlton is pleased with the attention being paid to infrastructure this election too, he said. “This is the first election campaign where all parties have demonstrated a clear understanding that investing in communities, investing in municipal issues, is an investment in solutions to the challenges that this country faces, including investing in things like infrastructure to improve the economy.”

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